Today, some 35 volunteers monitor 64 measurement sites around the country. The numbers they collect are published in the Icelandic scientific journal Jokull, and submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service database. Vacancies for glacier monitors are rare and highly sought-after, and many glaciers have been in the same family for generations, passed down to sons and daughters, like Haraldsson, when the journey becomes too arduous for their aging watchmen.
It’s very likely one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world. But in an age when precision glacier tracking can be conducted from afar, it remains unclear whether, or for how long, this sort of heirloom monitoring will continue into the future. It’s a question even some of the network’s own members have been asking.
As Haraldsson tells it, his father was raised in a modest yellow farmhouse on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. As an adult, he spent his days tending his fields and teaching at the local school, and in his free time, he studied the geology of the region, walking miles through the lava beds that lay in the shadow of the crown gem of the region: Snæfellsjokull, a 700,000-year-old, glacier-capped volcano.
It was a quiet life, unremarkable to those who passed through, until the arrival in 1930 of Jón Eyþórsson—a young man who had recently returned to Iceland after studying meteorology, first in Oslo, and then in Bergen, Norway.
Eyþórsson was now working for the Meteorological Office in Reykjavík, and in his spare time he had established the first program to monitor the growth and retreat of Iceland’s glaciers—but getting around the country to check up on them was troublesome and time-consuming. For the scientific record, every glacier needed to be measured in the same month, and travel was slow, often complicated by fierce, unpredictable storms. If his project was going to succeed, he needed new recruits, ideally farmers who need not travel far.
That, says Haraldsson, is how his family came to inherit Snæfellsjokull. At the time, there was no sense of scientific urgency to glacier monitoring; glaciers had always expanded and deflated naturally in modest increments. But that was decades ago. The world’s glaciers now serve as harbingers of human-caused climate change, providing powerful visual evidence of how people have changed the planet.
Inside Haraldsson’s home, portraits of Snæfellsjokull adorn the white walls in a way often reserved for close family members. Some are rendered in pastels and watercolor, while others are more abstract, etched in black and white. To Haraldsson, his wife Jenny (who painted many of them), and their son, Haraldur, it’s the family glacier.
Haraldsson began accompanying his father on his hikes to the glacier around 1962. Back then, the journey to the terminus was 10 to 15 kilometers by foot through steep, rocky terrain. The glacier itself spanned some 11 square kilometers—tiny as glaciers go. When they arrived, they would pull a long piece of thin rope with meter marks taut to measure the distance between the last icy bit and a metal rod, jotting down the observations they would send to the Iceland Glaciological Society. When his father passed away 14 years later, Haraldsson took over the task full time.